It’s Hallowe’en! Time to dress up in your scariest outfits, carve emblems into members of the squash family, and get your fill of pumpkin-spiced everything. Last week, everyone’s favourite Skywalker, Mark Hamill, tweeted some images of his favourite, and indeed surprising, autumnal themed treats, from pumpkin spice Twinkies to pumpkin spice Pepto Bismol…
Pumpkin spice consists of the flavors you would most closely associate with a seasonal pumpkin pie; cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and all spice. It is well documented that the reason people go wild for all things pumpkin spice (with some even acquiring their own modern day abbreviation – looking at you, PSL) is the sense of nostalgia that these flavours invoke. However, it is also pleasing to know that the chemicals in these spice mixes can actually do us some good too.
If the pumpkin spice is being used to actually flavor something pumpkin-related, great! You’re probably consuming at least one of your recommended five-a-day of fruits and vegetables. Pumpkins get their color from the beta-carotene packed in their cells. This is a precursor of vitamin A, which helps keep your immune defenses strong, and your eyes healthy, especially in the darkness of All Hallows Eve. Beta-carotene is also one of many antioxidants found in a pumpkin, which can neutralize the charged particles that can lead to cells becoming cancerous. Pumpkins are packed with potassium, and I personally believe they make for a far more palatable source of this vital vitamin than a banana. If you have ever carved a pumpkin and scooped the insides out, you will know how fibrous a pumpkin can be. This fibre is beneficial for your tummy and for your overall health. The vitamin C found in pumpkins can help heal wounds and repair tissues. It is also a chemical vital for the production of certain neurotransmitters in the body. You can collect the seeds from inside your pumpkin, dry and roast them with a little seasoning and enjoy a healthy snack full of protein and friendly fats such as omega-3 that are good for your heart. All these amazing benefits, and this is before we have even got to talking about the chemistry of the flavors in the pumpkin spice.
The spices used in this flavor combination are enhanced by the act of baking, as they undergo transformations into other chemicals. The chemical reaction that brings out the most delicious of flavors and scents is once again our trusty Maillard reaction, responsible for the yum-factor in all the best foodstuffs, including coffee, chocolate and steak. Nevertheless, as demonstrated by Hamill’s tweet, pumpkin spice’s versatile flavor can, and indeed will, be added to all manner of foods. If you’re a fan of this flavor, you’re further in luck, as the chemicals in the spices themselves possess beneficial properties. If we consider an average pumpkin spice mix, just one teaspoon of this comforting concoction can contain 12 percent of an adult’s recommended daily intake of manganese, which we need for healthy digestion and use of ammonia acids, and the metabolization of carbohydrates and cholesterol.
Cinnamaldehyde is both antibacterial and antioxidant in its activity, but there is also evidence that it can play a role in better regulating blood glucose levels and improving insulin regulation in diabetics. Nutmeg, ginger and clove all aid digestion, which is perfect if you, like me, are planning on overindulging in ‘pumpkinpalooza’. Though it would be nice to say that pumpkin spice could be the key to a healthy and balanced diet, unfortunately many of these fall time treats also contain huge amounts of sugar; there are a whopping 50g of sugar in one single Starbucks grande pumpkin spice latte, but are they are worth every delicious sip? It depends. If you’re having several a day, probably not, but if consumed in moderation, and given many of the benefits of both pumpkin and the spices used to flavor it, perhaps they balance out after all.Happy Hallowe’en!